‘Ottawa’ Reevely: Ottawa’s Retiring OMB Member Cries out for Better City Planning
Builders treat development rules like suggestions and Ontario cities co-operate so they can get parks and nice streets for cheap, a veteran member of the Ontario Municipal Board wrote in a scorching takedown of the way we plan communities in this province.
Marc Denhez’s cry begins around the 300th paragraph of a ruling on redeveloping a strip of land near Lake Ontario in Etobicoke, in west-end Toronto, which is probably why nobody much has noticed it since he issued it just before Labour Day weekend. That doesn’t make it any less amazing, especially as the provincial government works on a review of the board that can overturn city councils’ urban-planning decisions.
“Even before the current generation of developers, councillors and planners was born, the broad supposition was that land-use controls were like speed limits: they had moral suasion, but no knowledgeable person expected the industry to be held to that limit, any more than they expected to be ticketed for driving 101 kilometres per hour on Highway 401,” Denhez wrote. “In such a system … the best way to guarantee that a given vision would never materialize would be to entrench it in the planning documents.”
That’s not the way it’s supposed to work, he wrote, and not the way it always does. But it still happens too often.
“By that theory, when archeologists of the future unearthed the planning archives of the early 21st century, they would exclaim: ‘Despite the poetry, this was a civilization that did little but eat burgers and have their mufflers fixed; but they sure knew how to park’,” he wrote.
These are complaints we hear from residents and community groups all the time. Not from the tribunal bench.
Denhez, an Ottawa lawyer and expert on heritage architecture who counted Mayor Jim Watson as an old friend when he was appointed, spent 12 years on the board. His decision in Shoreline Towers Incorporated v. Toronto (City) was one of his last, though he still sits on the Conservation Review Board, a sibling to the OMB that examines protective designations for historic buildings.
I’ve spent a few days in hearings where Denhez presided. He’s an affable, owlish fellow with a desert-dry wit, whose decisions have affected a lot of Ottawa. He wrote a withering ruling a couple of years ago that killed a condo project on Roosevelt Avenue in Westboro, saying Ottawa’s city planners showed no evidence of real planning work behind the decision to approve it, for instance.
This Toronto case is bigger, with potentially billions of dollars involved in a fight over a district plan a lot like the one finally approved for Ottawa’s Centretown last year. The one in Etobicoke is for a forest of condos up to 25 storeys, and it’s extremely prescriptive about what can be built where.
It specifies building dimensions down to the centimetre. As with Centretown’s plan, the one for “Mimico-by-the-Lake” is so precise because Toronto’s planners wanted to show how exceptionally serious they are this time.
Which is a change. Land-sellers and the developers they sell to expect that rezonings are part of the game. “The broadly held view is that a developer who confines projects to as-of-right development (that is, what’s in the existing zoning) will inevitably overpay for land acquisition, and be out of business in six months.”
Cities, meanwhile, can extract cash or other concessions in exchange for favourable zoning changes.
In this Etobicoke case, Toronto set out to impose strict limits on building heights but it also saw a chance it couldn’t resist to spiff up a big piece of lakefront property with a fabulous view of the CN Tower by getting developers to pay for roads and parkland. Millions and millions of dollars’ worth.
One of the reasons the plan ended up in front of the OMB is that the builders said there’s not enough profit to be had in it to cover the pretty things Toronto wants. The city, Denhez wrote, either didn’t notice or didn’t care. Ottawa’s Centretown plan had a similar problem: The city focused more on the goodies it could get than on what private buildings its plan would produce.
By being hyperspecific about height limits but also demanding maximum public profit, both plans push developers to fill every cubic centimetre of space they’re allowed. To build boxes.
“Planners may argue over where to put the box, or how big it will be, or whether a squat box is better than a tall box; and they will argue over parking and money (some people believe that is all planners do); but the physical profile is already a foregone conclusion,” Denhez wrote. “Essentially none of the memorable new architecture (big or small), celebrated in the world’s textbooks over the last 30 years, would have any likelihood of being buildable here.”
His decision admittedly gets a little self-serving, by implication: Thank goodness we have the Ontario Municipal Board to fix developers’ and cities’ worst failings.
But he’s not wrong about the problems. Between build-and-run developers, budget-conscious planning departments, reactionary community associations and their city councillors, and the unaccountable OMB, we have more than enough bad actors sharing more than enough pathologies and perverse incentives.
Denhez sent the City of Toronto and landowners off with 25 instructions for tidying the plan together.
He understands why Toronto wants its plan to be taken seriously, he finished. “One might say the same for the entirety of the planning system.”